Charity fears older patients may be overlooked for cancer surgery

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OLDER cancer patients are less likely to have surgery than younger sufferers - according to new data published by a charity which claims it is evidence of an “age bias.”

Cancer Research UK published the report, compiled with the help of the National Cancer Intelligence Network (NCIN), suggesting cancer patients aged between 15 and 54 were more likely to undergo surgery for 19 types of the disease.

The charity says that while many factors might be at play - frailty, suffering more than one illness, being diagnosed at a late stage, patients choosing not to undergo surgery – the statistics paint a “worrying picture.”

The charity said kidney cancer patients under 55 were twice as likely to go under the knife as those aged between 75 and 84, with rates dropping from 73 per cent to 36 per cent, while for those over 85 surgery rates fell to one in 10.

Nick Ormiston-Smith, Cancer Research UK’s head of statistics, said: “These figures provide further detail about the age bias that older cancer patients face. Previous research has suggested that some older patients who are eligible for surgery may be overlooked because of their age.”

Although surgery is not an option for all cancers or all patients, other types of cancers where surgery was carried out on younger patients more often include the three biggest killers: breast, lung and bowel cancer.

Around a quarter, or 26 per cent, of breast cancer patients over 85 were given surgical procedures but in under 55s the rate rose to 76 per cent, the charity’s report said.

Only 15 per cent of under 55s had operations for lung cancer but this fell to less than one per cent for over 85s, while two thirds of those under 55 with the disease in their bowel underwent procedures compared to 39 per cent of over 85s.

Dr Mick Peake, clinical lead for the NCIN, said: “Surgeons take into account a number of factors when deciding whether to offer surgery to older cancer patients, such as whether the individual has other illnesses and the patient’s own personal choice. However, surgery is an effective treatment for many types of cancer and we need to ensure that patients are assessed on their individual fitness to undergo treatments irrespective of their age.”

Around 80 per cent of women under 55 had surgery for ovarian cancer. This fell to around 37 per cent of women between 75 and 84, and then to 15 per cent of women over 85.

Mr Ormiston-Smith added: “We need to understand what is driving this difference. Earlier diagnosis is incredibly important and something we’re pushing for as it will mean more patients will be suitable for surgery and other treatments. But if older patients are not being offered a surgical option, that is wrong.

“Surgery is an incredibly important part of a cancer patient’s treatment. If it’s suitable, surgery is often a key part of why many people survive a cancer diagnosis. It may not always be an option if cancer has been diagnosed late and has spread or if they aren’t well enough for the operation.

“Also, a patient may decide they don’t want to undergo surgery. But it’s vital we remove any barriers so that patients who might benefit from surgery are offered it. We clearly need more research to better understand the reasons why some older people may be missing out.”